The rise of gaming disorder and screen addicted kids in this coronavirus world

In the matter of a few weeks the coronavirus has or will soon change most of our comfortable family routines. I could rattle off a list of “non screen” activities for parents to encourage at home during this “social distancing” period like board games, painting, trampoline, card games…. the list goes on. But most parents, especially those with older children, will rebut through gritted teeth “This bloke is dreaming. No child is going to pick that stuff over screen time”.

Modern parents are asked to wear many hats. And in this a ge of technology apparently, we can add another to the never-ending list: general I.T. and screen/gaming expert. You all have time for that, right?

While many colleagues gallantly work to contribute to the field of research, let’s for the sake of this article put that to one side and allow ourselves to be practical. In my experience parents don’t care so much for the endless research and statistics in this field. They want practical real-world suggestions and strategies. This is exactly what my book “Tech Diet for your Child and Teen” serves up.

How do I know if it’s actually a problem or if this is just normal child/teen behaviour?

Once again, let’s not get bogged down in diagnostic criteria that for the most part is still being debated. Let’s break this down nice and simple. I would put it to you that any screen/gaming overuse can be assessed in a “developmental model”. I’m talking about the impact it’s having on developmental domains: social development, behavioural development, education development, emotional development and health. Okay, so “health” is not a traditional developmental domain but under that category we are referring to any impact it’s having on sleep, exercise, eating, posture, self-care and hygiene etc. This article is not the place to break down each individual domain, but I do provide in depth information on each are in the Tech Diet for your Child and Teen for those who are interested.

If it is a problem, what can be done at home to help manage it?

There are some specific steps or boundaries I have found that work best for parents. There are seven Unplugged Steps, and they usually work best when done as a package deal. But for a minute let’s just explore one of these steps:

Unplugged Step 1 – Control the WIFI: Without internet access most gaming and screen time loses much of its “addictive” qualities. Parents should place less emphasis on “parental filters” and more on the simple concept of “internet on, internet off”.

How will the Coronavirus change my Child’s Tech Use?

Well, let’s tackle this one head on. No one has a crystal ball and we are all in new territory. But there is one thing that looks to be certain: our kids will be spending more time at home. Not just those who are sick or in isolation, but in general. Not to mention if schools are closed for any prolonged period and all the class work moves online.

Now many of you may be thinking as a “screen addiction expert” I would be mortified by this? No, not really. This is one of the many times screens and the internet will actually be helpful in our wellbeing and keep us connected. In saying that as parents we still need to focus on our kids getting a balance. And in the current climate that has become much more difficult.

So, if we cast ourselves back to those five developmental domains I mentioned earlier, we use the same framework but need to get creative. Take for example Social Development. Yes, some of your child’s social needs can be met online through seeing and playing games with their friends. Emphasis on some. We used to get that balance naturally through sending them to school, sport, etc. If these events are cancelled or scaled back due to Coronavirus we as parents need to get creative. Are we able to set up old fashioned play dates with neighbours or other kids that are not in isolation? Perhaps being mindful about doing these in smaller groups and in controlled settings like the good old suburban back yard would do the trick? You can probably see where I am going with this. That is a far better balance than your child being glued to a screen for 10-14 hours per day.

Another key to parents surviving this bizarre world will be routine. Regardless of what your teenager says or how they respond, they thrive on routine. So, structure your kids recreational screen use in a similar manner to how it would be if it was a normal school day. Gaming at 10.00am? That doesn’t sound like a normal routine. Social Media at 1.00am because there is no school tomorrow? Not going to work. This period should not be treated as a holiday. Even if they have no work to do, screens off during the “school hours” will induce boredom. Boredom usually leads to kids getting creative the old-fashioned way.

The bottom line is this. None of us are perfect parents. I’m fairly sure my kids will end up with more screen time should this crisis go down the path it’s headed. But I would encourage parents to continue to think about all of your child’s developmental needs, be creative, and do the best you can while we all ride this out.

Brad Marshall is a Psychologist and Director of The Internet Addiction Clinic @ Kidspace Sydney. Brad is recognised as one of Australia’s leading experts in Gaming/Screen addiction. Brad’s most recent project “The Unplugged Psychologist” provides free tips and strategies to parents in conjunction with the recent release of his book “The Tech Diet for Your Child and Teen” published by Harper Collins. Brad is a well-respected guest speaker delivering seminars for students, parents, educators and corporate audiences on finding a balanced Tech Diet at home and school. Brad provides a common sense, humorous and practical voice on complex parenting topics.

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